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Correcting Your Behavior Since 2017

Quick Italian Coffee

If you've ever enjoyed that uniquely Italian beverage, caffè espresso, you know of its cheeky zing and bitter goodness. It's not quite like any other coffee. It's nearly impossible to feel anything less than stylish and intellectual while drinking caffè espresso. One can easily imagine oneself passing time at a sidewalk cafe in Milan in tailored white slacks, casually elegant loafers, a blazer worn only on the shoulders, and maybe even a beret or an ascot for good measure. The riffraff know nothing of espresso—at least, not the proper espresso, presented in a tiny white porcelain coffee cup with a curl of lemon rind, to be rubbed around the rim.

Caffè espresso gets its name, of course, from the process by which it is made, in which hot water is forced by pressure (expressed) through the freshly ground coffee beans, emerging on the other end in the form of steamy liquid darkness. In Italian, the English verb "to express" is esprimere, from the Latin exprimere. As one can clearly see, the Italian word does not contain an x. And neither does the name of the drink. Look at it: caffè espresso. Search as you may, there is nary an x to be found.

Now, presumably, by the time one is old enough to appreciate this drink, one has learned one's ABCs and how to sound out words by looking at the letters. (Preschoolers rarely request caffè espresso. It's not suited to their tastes, nor is the delivery of a caffeine jolt to their little nervous systems particularly desirable to the adults in their midst.) And so, given the grown-up demographic of espresso drinkers, there really isn't an excuse for mangling this special beverage's name. Nevertheless, we continue to hear the jarringly ignorant mispronunciation, "expresso"—particularly from those who don't quite deserve the attendant reputation for sophistication.

There is no such drink as "expresso." It is a non-thing. You cannot order it, drink it, or even say it. Because, at least as a beverage, it does not exist. It's like ordering a glass of wooter or iced tie or Scotch whiskers. It's linguistically nonsensical.

But shamefully, even some purveyors of caffè espresso prove themselves unworthy of that privilege by pronouncing it with an x—or even spelling it that way on their menus—for shame! I mean, if you're going to serve it, you ought to know how to say it!

Of course, it doesn't help that some companies have embraced the non-word as a name for their products. Expresso (sometimes spelled with one s) has been used to brand bikes, printers, bus companies, parking services, a film, a web program, a newspaper, a telecommunications company, a South African morning TV show, and a character in a popular video game. You may even see it—tragically—as the name of a pseudo-Italian eatery, like Trattoria Expresso or Expresso Café. Wrong in every possible way.

But the ridiculousness of "expresso" is all too typical in a society that increasingly supports a trend of mental laziness by not giving words adequate consideration while simultaneously exalting the idea of boundless entitlement to individual interpretation. Thus, "that's how I say it" is thought to be an acceptable response from someone who's just been told he's mispronouncing a word. To those who are in the habit of mispronouncing espresso, correcting their error is an annoyance, and asks for too much effort. Besides, who cares, right? Big deal. Everyone knows what these people mean by "expresso." And if current-day English speakers want to pronounce a non-existent x, why, isn't that their right as Americans?

No. It is not. Expresso is not allowed. It's not correct. And that fact is not subject to anyone's personal sense of self-expression. No. You may not say it. Because there are rules. Now there are some words that aren't pronounced often enough.

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